A M Homes: Reasons to be cheerful

A M Homes has won widespread acclaim for her fearless and fiercely controversial fiction. She tells Elsbeth Lindner why her latest novel shows her lighter side
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The Independent Culture

In New York, A M Homes isn't merely a novelist. She is that "perverse", "dangerous" writer who shocked the world with The End of Alice, written from the point of view of a paedophile, and Music for Torching, in which a middle-class couple with two children set fire to their suburban home. She's also a celeb. When, recently, she bought a summer home in the Hamptons, the news - and the price - made The New York Times's property pages. New York magazine talks of the likes of Sofia Coppola and Laurie Anderson attending her baby shower. Her new novel, This Book Will Change Your Life (Granta, £14.99), was reviewed not just by leading critics such as Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times (she deemed it "dreadful") but also People magazine (circulation close to four million), which awarded it three stars out of a possible four.

AM, as she's known, is out there, except that she's not. She moves in interesting, sometimes avant-garde circles, yet is famously private. In some lights she can seem a high-profile enigma. Her new novel - in which Richard Novak, a divorced and intentionally isolated Los Angeles stock trader, emerges from his luxurious retreat to become a postmodern Good Samaritan - has shocked readers anew by being upbeat where the others were dark. Has the "daring", "fearless" bad-girl-about-town gone soft?

"I think it's just as daring and just as dangerous to write about somebody who's trying to find a more positive experience in their life," she answers. "To me, all my work is organic. The books are not sequential, in a literal way, but they come out of each other, extensions of similar themes. This one isn't a big departure. Although it's a fun read and it's got some light-heartedness to it, it is asking people to pay attention to how they are in their lives - and there's nothing really funny or light about that."

We are talking in a Greenwich Village coffee shop, on a showery afternoon shortly after AM has returned from her publicity tour and West Coast launch party. The new book's LA setting takes advantage of "that literal edge of America. I wanted to write about the way the landscape plays on the people. And I think that Los Angeles is a place where the American dream is thriving. Despite what's going on in the rest of the country, it's still a place where people go to make it... It really is a city which feeds on such transformation."

Nevertheless, the shadow of New York City falls over the book, which perhaps comes as close as AM will ever get to writing her 9/11 novel. "One of the moments of transformation for me was not so much about becoming a parent, but watching something happen in New York City - something that in my mind's eye I could never have conjured. All of a sudden, reality became so much more threatening and dark, went places that I would never go, and I think that that also made me think about how fragile things are. That, in some ways, is more of a factor in what people are calling the 'niceness'. But I also think that whatever the 'niceness' is, it's truly a more accurate representation of who I am, at core, than probably anything else so far."

It comes as a jolt - of a different kind - to those who only know Homes by reputation to find that she is the antithesis of a high-living, shellacked modernist, but rather an accessible moralist with a driving urge towards the generous and the compassionate. This revelation, however, seems appropriately Homes-ian too: thought-provoking, unexpected, slyly comic, complex and moving at the same time. "The biggest challenge for me was: how do you write a book that is dark and funny and real but also in the end uplifting?," she says. "I think most contemporary fiction is not uplifting and I really wanted to try it and see what it would feel like. And in some ways it's hysterically funny and truly god-awful that I'm getting slammed for it. 'We will not tolerate that,'" she mocks, then laughs. But had she expected anything different? "I really did. In a funny way it also speaks to how... naive I must be. It proves that I am that sucker."

Whatever AM Homes is, she's no kind of sucker. For a high-profile New Yorker, she's savvy and straight and strikingly free of solipsism. She admits to having had an atypical childhood, adopted by an arts-oriented household in Maryland. Her father was a painter and there were other writers in the family. She refers to a lifetime of being haunted by the ghost of a dead older brother and the sense of a family "filled with grief".

Politics mattered to her from an early age, and so did writing. Her first novel, Jack, about a child learning his father is gay, was completed at the age of 19 as an undergraduate homework assignment. The book is not only still in print but also appears on recommended reading lists for teachers. She has described herself "writing her way into the world", starting aged nine, with poetry. Then there were the pen pals, the high-profile strangers - such as Pete Townshend and the film-maker John Sayles - whom Homes approached as a child in her search for people with whom she felt a connection, and who then became regular correspondents.

The young iconoclast with political concerns and an appetite for creativity and investigation, who felt "capable of doing enormous things", has grown up faithful to that early recognition of the urgency of making a contribution. Her books present challenges. She famously wants to make people think, which explains the genesis of The End of Alice. But she presents those challenges by synthesising them into smooth, unembellished prose dotted with surreal comic flashes and narrated in disturbingly authentic voices.

"For me, the work always starts with ideas, philosophical ideas, not voices," she explains. "I'm interested in, for example, money, or what does it mean if you have everything and you have nothing, or the geography of a city, or the way the natural environment affects the lived environment. Then it becomes about finding characters to go on that adventure with, on that exploration with."

Much of the fiction has been set in Westchester, in the dormitory communities and suburbs that hug New York City. This is John Cheever country, Richard Yates country. Homes has cited the latter as an influence, but also Grace Paley - who taught her for a while, as did Angela Carter. But in answer to a question about style and content, she cites John Steinbeck: "I never want the fiction to be difficult to read, in and of itself. The ideas could be complicated but the object is to make something that anybody could read. I do my work within a very traditional-seeming structure. I really loved Steinbeck, I loved the fact that you could read those books in fourth grade or in college and every time you read them... they changed. They are ... very rich, and not judgmental... I never want to say this is what you should think, I want to say: 'Here is a world, what do you think of it'?"

The tour has gone well; there have been great reviews as well as some carping ones; but she also mentions how a few members of her audience were puzzled and disappointed. They expected Homes's new book to be her memoir, a longer version of a widely read piece published in The New Yorker in late 2004, which detailed her encounter with her birth parents. Far from a tale of cheering reunion, this was a cool but heartfelt description of the shock, and dismay, of recognition. That book, The Mistress's Daughter, will appear next year. Homes has just delivered it to her publishers, but the discomfort of exposure is with her still. "I don't like to write autobiographically. It's excruciating. It makes me incredibly anxious and shy. The only reason I pushed myself to finish it is that I kept thinking, 'God, I hope this helps someone else feel better.'"

It's another paradox to add to the list, that the carefully guarded Homes is going public. She was quizzed about pain on the tour too, the vice-like pain - physical, existential, psychic - that seizes Novak in the opening pages of This Book Will Save Your Life but in effect liberates him from his emotional prison. Had Homes known such pain herself, readers wondered. She jokes about paper cuts and the use of the imagination, but then says, "Yes, I've been in that much pain. I'm constantly in that much pain. Life fills you with that much pain... It's a question of what you do with it. I've worked to be compassionate, a participant in my world, to not close my eyes to things and to be present and accountable. At the same time, that leaves you incredibly vulnerable and open to excruciating pain. But I don't know that there's a better way."

What about the next novel? It might be about LA, with which she says she is not finished. It might be about shape-shifting: "I would like to figure out how to break the bounds of reality". Homes herself, for all her mercurial gifts, seems to be the direct antithesis of a shape-shifter. She is nothing if not consistent and there's a lot more she needs to do. Novak, in his extremis, asks, terrified, "Is this IT?" Homes is in no doubt.

Biography

A M Homes (born Amy) grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, the adopted daughter of a painter. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she wrote her first novel, Jack, aged 19: it was published in 1989. Her later novels include the controversial The End of Alice, Music for Torching and In a Country of Mothers, and she has published two short-story collections: The Safety of Objects and Things You Should Know. Her new novel, This Book Will Save Your Life is published by Granta this week. Next year, The Mistress's Daughter - a non-fiction account of her meeting with her birth parents - will appear. A M Homes teaches writing at Columbia University and the New School. She has a three-year-old daughter and lives in New York City.

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